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Soldier's Heart

Thousands of Iraq War veterans will come home to face serious psychological problems and a system that may not be ready to help them.

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The first time Kristin Peterson's husband hit her, she was asleep in their bed. She awoke that night a split second after Joshua's fist smashed into her face and ran, terrified and crying, to the bathroom to wipe the blood spurting from her nose.

When she stuck her head back into the bedroom, there he was--punching at the air, muttering how she was coming after him and how he was going to kill her. Kristin started yelling but Joshua's eyes were closed. He was still asleep.

The next morning Joshua saw the dried blood on his wife. "Oh God," she recalls him saying. "I did that."

Peterson doesn't remember the night or the nightmares. He also can't remember punching his wife again in his sleep a few weeks later, this time driving her front tooth through her lip, all the while murmuring how he'd never go back.

For six months last year, Peterson helped build an oil pipeline across Iraq as a specialist in the Army's 110th Quartermaster Company. On the same highway where Private Jessica Lynch was ambushed, he saw Iraqi soldiers, dead and rotting, dangling out of their tanks. One time Peterson's truck broke down and he was surrounded by a group of Iraqi children, some throwing rocks, others toting AK-47s. "I kept thinking, "God, I can't handle this,'" the 24-year-old says with a hollow laugh.

Since Peterson came back to Richmond Hill, Ga., in August 2003, these memories have turned him into a man Kristin often doesn't recognize -- a man who lashes out in anger at her and their 21-month-old son, whose awful dreams tell him to beat his wife because, in his sleep, she's an Iraqi.

There are thousands of Operation Iraqi Freedom soldiers across the country like Joshua Peterson. They are coming home with minds twisted by what they've seen and done in Iraq.

A December 2003 Army study -- published in The New England Journal of Medicine -- found that approximately 16 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a psychologically debilitating condition causing intense nightmares, paranoia and anxiety. But that study is, already, out of date.

Now, after a particularly bloody summer and fall, many military and mental health experts predict the rate of PTSD will actually run nearly twice what the Army study found, to approximately the same level suffered by Vietnam veterans. Others think it could spike even higher and note that rarely before has such a dramatic rate of PTSD manifested itself so early.

At the same time, there is mounting concern over the system designed to help: The Department of Veterans Affairs. Numerous reports show the VA does not have many of the essential services veterans desperately need.

"I don't know how many people are going to be seeking treatment, or whether the demand is going to be met by available resources," acknowledges Matthew Friedman, executive director of the VA's National Center for PTSD. "What I am confident about is that people who come for treatment will get good treatment."

Mental health officials at Tampa Bay's two largest VA hospitals -- James A. Haley in Tampa and Bay Pines in St. Petersburg -- echo Friedman's cautious optimism. "Could we use more staff? Yeah. Of course I could," acknowledges Anthony Taylor, the coordinator of Bay Pines' PTSD program, one of only two such programs in Florida with an in-patient component. "We're seeing more patients, but we haven't seen any more staff or more money." But Taylor, a Vietnam vet, isn't desperate. "We'll do the best we can. I think the program's ready. If it means working 12 hours a day, I'll do it."

Yet the VA chronically has under-funded mental health programs. A $1.65 billion shortfall is projected for those programs by the end of 2007, and veterans' advocates predict disastrous consequences.

"If we don't give the VA what it needs immediately, the consequences will be lifelong and devastating," says Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.

The emerging scenario is that of a generation of new veterans whose psyche is in tatters, their families scarred by the strangers their loved ones have become -- and of an exhausted health care system holding its breath.

"When you kill someone in combat, two things can happen," says Sergeant Walter Padilla, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Division. "The crazy ones go crazier. Or nothing happens." In October 2003, Padilla was commanding a Bradley Fighting Vehicle near the city of Kirkuk, rounding up insurgents and fending off mortar attacks.

On a break one day, Padilla's company headed to a deserted area a few miles from base to practice their marksmanship. When gunfire rang out from a nearby village, Padilla wheeled his Bradley around to investigate. He saw two groups of armed men arguing over a pile of wood. The Bradley rumbled closer and the men began shooting.

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